At various points in the past decade, I’ve considered Glenn Greenwald an inspiration (for his righteous criticism of Barack Obama’s drone strikes, Israel’s human-rights violations, and the justice system’s class biases); a credit to leftist bloggers everywhere (for his unlikely but not unearned receipt of Edward Snowden’s leaks and subsequent transformation into an international celebrity); a polemicist who’s doing righteous and brave work in Brazil, but has gotten a bit too fixated on owning the libs (for treating hyperbolic coverage of an investigation into a presidential campaign’s genuine improprieties as the biggest outrage of the Trump era); and objectively a Republican (for subjecting all major media figures to unsparing criticism except for the blatantly dishonest and racist stars of America’s most-watched cable network, defending the U.S. Senate as a vital check against majoritarian tyranny, and saying on national television, days before the 2020 election, that the prospect of the Democratic Party reclaiming power was “a very alarming proposition because they are authoritarian”).
But I’m not sure I’ve ever considered him quite as tedious as I did while reading his latest Substack blog, “The Bizarre Refusal to Apply Cost-Benefit Analysis to COVID Debates.” If you have always wanted to know what it feels like to get stuck in a nonconsensual, one-way conversation with a libertarian high-school debate captain who’s more in love with his own brain than you will ever be with anyone or anything, Greenwald has just done you a great service. (I can already hear the debate captain shouting “point of personal privilege,” so I’ll try to steer clear of ad hominem from here on out.)
Anyhow, Greenwald’s defense of cost-benefit analyses is far from the most objectionable thing he’s written in recent months. But its defects are emblematic of broader pathologies in both this particular pundit’s work and the contemporary media ecosystem. So, it’s worth examining them in some detail (especially since I need new blog fodder to meet the demands of the contemporary media ecosystem).
Greenwald’s post opens with this thesis statement:
In virtually every realm of public policy, Americans embrace policies which they know will kill people, sometimes large numbers of people. They do so not because they are psychopaths but because they are rational: they assess that those deaths that will inevitably result from the policies they support are worth it in exchange for the benefits those policies provide. This rational cost-benefit analysis, even when not expressed in such explicit or crude terms, is foundational to public policy debates — except when it comes to COVID, where it has been bizarrely declared off-limits.
He then expounds his argument with the following points:
• If you think that only psychopaths would embrace policies that kill people, consider the automobile: Cars kill tens of thousands of Americans each year. And we know that lowering the speed limit would drastically reduce the prevalence of such deaths. So “why is nobody clamoring for a ban on cars, or at least severe restrictions on who can drive (essential purposes only) or how fast (25 mph)?” Simple: “We employ a rational framework of cost-benefit analysis.”
• And yet, once the COVID-19 pandemic began, it became “extremely common in Western democracies for large factions of citizens to demand that any measures undertaken to prevent COVID deaths are vital, regardless of the costs imposed by those policies.” Such anti-pandemic absolutism is especially outrageous when one considers the harms that school closures and lockdowns have imposed on children, particularly those from disadvantaged families.
• Whatever conclusion one reaches when balancing the costs of school closures for child development against the benefits of such policies for containing COVID’s spread, “what is unacceptable — sociopathic, really — is the insistence on assigning severe costs to just one side of the ledger (harms from COVID itself) while categorically refusing to recognize let alone value the costs on the other side of the ledger.”
There are some small problems with Greenwald’s case. For example, it is not true that “nobody” is “clamoring for a ban on cars.” In fact, the New York Times, Buzzfeed, and Gizmodo all published columns in recent years making the case for banning cars from urban centers. In September 2020, The City Monitor reported, “‘Ban cars’ has become a clarion call of contemporary urbanism.” And as of 2019, 15 major cities were in the process of implementing such bans. To be sure, banning cars from densely populated metro areas to make big cities more liveable — and banning them outright to reduce car-crash deaths — are distinct propositions. But safety concerns are a pillar of the urbanist case against cars. And on the American left, the notion that personal car ownership would not exist in an ideal society — and/or that the advent of the car was a great calamity, as it abetted racial and socioeconomic segregation, fostered a culture of anti-social individualism, and (above all) wrecked the climate — is not uncommon.
The big problem with Greenwald’s argument, though, is that cost-benefit analyses have not been “declared off-limits” in public-policy debates about COVID. And it’s a bit hard to understand how anyone who didn’t just awake from a two-year-long coma, immediately watch three Tucker Carlson monologues about COVID, and then get into a Twitter spat with a few (powerless) public-health absolutists could think otherwise.
In the U.S. last year, most states and municipalities kept restaurants and bars open, even as tens of thousands of Americans were testing positive for COVID-19 each day. When we reopened indoor dining here in deep-blue New York City last September, we were averaging 423 daily confirmed COVID cases. No vaccines were available at that time. But the city deemed the costs of maintaining restrictions — to small businesses, consumers, and its own tax revenues — to be higher than the benefits of minimizing COVID’s spread.
One can debate whether the Big Apple struck the right balance there. Perhaps the city should have reopened sooner. Although, considering that COVID cases in NYC spiked shortly after such establishments reopened — and subsequent CDC research found a tight correlation between the reopening of indoor dining and the acceleration of COVID’s spread — the notion that New York City’s pandemic restrictions reflected an irrational public-health absolutism seems unsustainable. Even America’s most “Fauci-friendly” cities enacted policies that gave clear weight to the costs of COVID restrictions.
As for Greenwald’s concern about the impacts of school closures on child development: Far from being declared “off limits” for public-policy debates, those impacts have been a focal point of debates about COVID restrictions since the pandemic’s onset. Greenwald asserts that the deprivations suffered by low-income children who lose access to in-person instruction “are assigned little to no weight in mainstream discourse.” He offers no evidence to support this claim. He does, however, supply evidence that contradicts it: The bulk of his blog post’s information about the adverse impacts of school closures derives from the reporting of a mainstream news outlet.
In reality, America’s major papers have published countless reports on the inadequacies of remote learning and op-eds calling for the resumption of in-person classes. And now, even as the Delta variant spreads, and the FDA drags its feet on approving COVID vaccines for children under 12, public schools across the country are doing just as those op-eds demand. Even here in New York City, in-person classes are resuming.
All of which raises the question: Why does Glenn Greenwald believe that our policy discourse is censoriously stigmatizing advocates of school reopening when advocates of school reopening run virtually every municipality in the United States?
My best guess: Greenwald is less concerned with how COVID policies are being debated in America’s city halls than with how they’re being discussed in his Twitter mentions. The Substack star does not actually quote anyone — not a politician, activist, or journalist — who takes the position that “any measures undertaken to prevent COVID deaths are vital, regardless of the costs imposed by those policies.” Rather, he merely attributes this position to “large factions of citizens” in Western democracies. The size of these factions and their actual influence over public policy are never specified.
That said, I do think one can find people on Twitter who are quick to equate opposition to any given COVID restriction with a sociopathic indifference to human life. I’d wager that most of these folks do not reject cost-benefit analysis per se, but rather believe that the benefits of controlling the spread of a pandemic disease are so overwhelming that other considerations are trivial. They might also note that, in contrast with banning cars, COVID restrictions do not demand a permanent reordering of society for the sake of reducing unnecessary deaths, only a temporary suspension of ordinary activities. In any case, such Twitter users can be annoying.
I’m in no position to criticize a blogger for building a whole column out of “a thing that annoyed me on Twitter.” But Greenwald never specifies that this is what he’s doing. Which is to say, he never informs his readers that the perspective he’s critiquing has no purchase on the halls of power. One can question whether U.S. COVID policies have struck the right balance between public health and other social goods (personally, I think Oregon’s outdoor-mask mandate is a bit much). But it’s undeniable that public policy has weighed considerations besides minimizing COVID’s spread.
This refusal to distinguish between the dynamics of media discourse and those of real-life politics is a defining feature of Greenwald’s recent commentary. During the Trump years, Greenwald decried the president’s opposition for focusing monomaniacally on “Russiagate,” apparently because he could not tell the difference between MSNBC (a cable news channel that naturally exploited the dramatic appeal of the Mueller investigation) and the Democrats (a political party that centered its midterm campaign on health-care policy). He went on to interpret the presence of NeverTrump Biden supporters on cable news as proof that the Democratic Party was “now in full union with the neocons and Bush-Cheney operatives” — a claim that did not make much sense at the time, given the identities of Biden’s foreign-policy advisers, and which is even less credible now that the president is withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in defiance of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists alike.
In the case of COVID and cost-benefit analyses, Greenwald’s conflation of social-media discourse with real-world politics seems willful. He ends his post with a link to a 30-minute-video version of the same argument published on Rumble, the YouTube rival that gained a modicum of market share this year by abiding COVID conspiracy-theory videos when YouTube wouldn’t. Given this tie-in, it’s hard not to suspect that Greenwald’s failure to note the political irrelevance of anti-COVID absolutism was deliberate. Some people are keen to believe that the most fanatical shutdown enthusiasts they’ve met online actually run the world. If you’re looking to build an audience on a platform that caters to such people, you might be inclined to throw them a bone.
Intentional or otherwise, Greenwald’s conflations are indicative of broader trends in contemporary discourse. Today’s hypercompetitive attention economy helps the politically minded see the change they fear in the world: Since what offends or terrifies also engages, social-media algorithms (and the media companies that serve at their mercy) end up directing many news junkies into a universe populated by the most harrowing versions of the political movements and institutions they despise. The Republican Party has made a concerted effort to exploit this reality by elevating online controversies over New York Times articles and Dr. Seuss books into national news stories (as though these matters had some bearing on federal policy) while aiming to elide the distinctions between Joe Biden and “red rose Twitter.” But opportunistic pundits — from Resistance grifters to #ForceTheVote demagogues to 45-year-old “college Republicans” — have also taken to affirming the misimpressions of the terminally online. Countercultural commentators can derive significant benefits from insinuating that, say, Lincoln Project neocons run the Democratic Party; or that woke scolds control the commanding heights of the economy; or that technocrats have been imposing pandemic restrictions without any consideration of their downsides; or that Tucker Carlson is a credible journalist.
But at what cost?